Organists are funny creatures. They have an unexplainable love of an instrument, actually a machine, that lurks in cold buildings and has the power to both intimidate and impress listeners. And there we have it – power – organists love power. Even the smallest examples of the Queen (or King!) of instruments are capable of creating powerful sounds to fill the spaces they occupy, whether tiny chapels or cavernous cathedrals. Power does not just mean LOUD – the power of the smallest stops sounding in the largest space is indescribable. An organist has at their disposal an arsenal of sounds fit for any occasion. This is one reason the subject of improvisation has become so important in the organ world.
Another is, of course, the connection to religious institutions. The necessity to create musical accompaniment to a certain liturgical situation at a certain time is found throughout the religious world in practically all traditions – from vocal improvisation to modern bands – it’s not limited to the organ world. The organist however, is the only one with so many tonal possibilities and in the case of pipe organs, the physical movement of air through not only the instrument, but also its room, means that the sounds it creates can be felt as well as heard.
Improvisation has therefore remained a crucial part of learning to play the organ professionally. Concert organists regularly end their concerts with an improvisation. Church services are peppered with music “made up on the spot”. A great deal of organ repertoire started out as an improvised idea which was then developed before finally being put to paper. The importance of improvisation in music academies around the world is equal to that of learning repertoire.
How do you learn to improvise? How do you learn to walk? Ride a bike? Drive a car? Learning by doing, as the Germans love to say. Start at the beginning and work your way up. But how? Where is the beginning?
Listen. Listen to other organists. Study their style. Do their improvisations sound basically the same? Are there any common phrases/rhythms/harmonies that reappear throughout their pieces? I know I rely on a basic framework of modular harmonies and transpositions. I prefer playing in certain keys and certain time signatures. My melodies are easy to follow (I know my audience!) and I like to “keep it simple” for the listener. Other organists rely on other techniques learned over years and years of practising, repeating, listening and analysing.
A great number of organ “freaks” these days love the French style of improvisation and are amazed that its champions are able to create such amazing musical works at the drop of a hat. Listen carefully though – you will still find a common thread or idea behind the fanciful sounds. How do you learn to play like that? Practise. Start by learning Messian’s modes of limited transposition. Really learning them. Then learn to incorporate them into a framework – a structure – for your piece of music. Then add your own take on it. Rhythm/melody/time/tempo/technique.
What about registration? That’s a topic for another day… Or another series of videos… To be continued!